Technology + terror + the Great British Public = Charlie Brooker’s best work yet, says Hannah Dunleavy. CONTAINS SPOILERS.
When the UK woke to the accusation that a younger incarnation of our then Prime Minister had shoved little Dave into a dead pig as part of some mega-LOLs posh boy japery, every journalist worth their salt threw themselves into getting the first reaction quote from one man. Charlie Brooker.
It was well established that Brooker appeared to ‘get’ where we are as a nation in the early part of the 21st century long before Black Mirror hit our screens and the praise he’s garnered for his satirical eye is thoroughly deserved. But what he’s less often praised for is the simple fact that he also ‘gets’ television: what makes it so interesting, so pertinent, so moving. And what makes it such an effective ‘mirror’ for the world we live in.
The news that Channel 4 had lost out to Netflix in a bidding war for one of its best and most thought-provoking series in years, garnered a deal of sympathy for the broadcaster. Although that’s arguably diminished since it nicked GBBO from the BBC.
But what does that move mean for the viewer? Two things. (Three if you don’t have a Netflix account.) Firstly, we can watch episodes immediately after each other. Secondly, we can choose the order in which we watch them.
Having seen the whole series, there’s a clear benefit in doing the former. I’d not advise the latter, however, and I say that despite the fact the first episode, ‘Nosedive’ is, for me, not just the weakest of series three but perhaps of the series as a whole.
Starring Bryce Dallas Howard and focusing on our addiction to social media, it did so little for me that I’m not going to bother talking about it. Not least because it cuts into the available time to talk about the other five episodes, which range from proper interesting to straight-up excellent.
“Charlie Brooker deserves special praise for his championing of women, and women of colour in particular, by creating so many interesting and varied characters for them to play.”
The second, ‘Playtest’, is a real shot in the arm, focusing on gaming and using Inception-style layering, as well as a compression of time. The net result being that I’m still not 100 per cent on what the fuck happened. However, like so many previous episodes of Black Mirror, that’s largely irrelevant as it’s anchored by a real barn-burner of a performance by Wyatt Russell, who gradually descends from affable traveller to full-on gibbering wreck in a matter of… nah, I don’t know, but in Netflix time, about half an hour.
It’s probably the closest Black Mirror has gone to outright horror and it effectively blends futuristic technology with good old-fashioned scares, like a figure in a window.
It also features a great turn by Wunmi Mosaku, which follows in the series’ tradition of pairing two characters who shouldn’t really work together but very much do – and in casting women in roles that lesser series would probably have given to a man. In fact, Brooker deserves special praise for his championing of women, and women of colour in particular, by creating so many interesting and varied characters for them to play.
Episode three, ‘Shut Up and Dance’, benefits from the next episode ‘bounce’, as it allows a residual sympathy to carry over to another young man playing a ‘game’ he has no control over. This makes the third act rug pull all the more effective.
For me, it’s the strongest episode of the series, for a number of reasons, but not least because it’s where Brooker is on his firmest ground, focusing not on the potential of future technology, but merely showing us what darker instincts current technology has allowed us to pursue.
It’s an extraordinary and very British hour of television, covering the notion of justice with such swaggering self-confidence it uses Radiohead’s Exit Music (For a Film) and makes it work.
What’s perhaps most impressive is that the rug pull is identical to the one in a previous Black Mirror episode, ‘White Bear’. And yet it’s still mighty effective, shitting all over the ‘innocence’ of its main character, while questioning the kind of mob justice so often called for on social media and the Daily Mail comments section.
It’s a near perfect piece of social satire, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact it needs an extraordinary turn to make it work and it gets one from Alex Lawther. (Seriously, if 66-year-old Robbie Coltrane was considered ‘brave’ for being in National Treasure, then the 21-year-old has balls of solid steel for taking this role on. He probably won’t get a Bafta nod, especially after the Netflix move, but he sure as shit deserves one.)
“Episode four is a finger in the eye to the hoary TV trope that all happy lesbians must be separated by death and the ONLY thing I ever want to watch about finding The One in the matrix.”
A big wave too, to the ever reliable Jerome Flynn, the other half of this episode’s odd couple. The scene where he, Lawther and Natasha Little’s PTA mum are in a car together is probably the perfect example of what Black Mirror does best. It’s unbearably tense and a wee bit funny, but never played for easy laughs.
The other two episodes that benefit from a bit of binge watching are numbers five and six, as one could be viewed as an open letter to Katie Hopkins and the other one to everyone who ever called her a cunt on Twitter.
‘Men Against Fire’ couldn’t be more timely, tackling the issues of people labelled cockroaches and modern warfare (and, applause, still finding the space for some meaty roles for women). Yet again, it’s grounded by a terrific performance, this time from Malachi Kirby, and supported by the ever-glorious Michael Kelly and the ever-reliable Francis Magee, all hammering home the message that ignorance is, indeed, bliss. Provided you’re the right sort of person in the first place.
As a counterpoint, ‘Hated in the Nation’, a feature-length episode, covers similar ground to Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, barely disguising its contempt for the public reaction to people like Hopkins and Charlie Gilmour and reminding us of the nation’s ability to go a bit Boaty McBoatface given the right impetus.
It’s essentially a The Bridge-style thriller, with an elaborate plan and hidden genius who’s had his feelings hurt, and makes the most of the many talents of Kelly Macdonald and Faye Marsay, the technophobe and the tech whiz tasked with solving the case.
So what, I hear you ask, about episode four, ‘San Junipero’? Well, that’s something else altogether. Literally. A straight-up love story, which, like the most truly impressive TV, is best watched twice: once as you struggle to understand what on earth is going on, the second to revel in its unabashed loveliness and wet eye-inducing charm. It’s a finger in the eye to the hoary TV trope that all happy lesbians must be separated by death and the ONLY thing I ever want to watch about finding The One in the matrix.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis are superb, both together and alone, as the old woman in a young body and the young girl in an old body back in a young body. In fact, I’m pretty confident they’ll be on the end of year list of the best performances by women.
I raise my hat to you Brooker. Black Mirror continues to be a rich, varied and often terrifying look at this fucked-up world. Long may it continue.
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Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.